Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Of the essays I’ve read so far in Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature, the one on Madame Bovary was the most complex. Not only did I learn a lot about the novel, but I also got to peek in a window at Nabokov’s study style and passion for writing, translating and reading. His in-depth knowledge of the text reminds me that he believed we could never really read a text but only re-read it. It’s clear he knew the book practically by heart and had spent hours and hours analyzing scenes and conversations, diagramming character relationships and significant details. There are a few books I have read again and again, ones I believe I have nearly memorized, but Nabokov’s intimate knowledge of Madame Bovary made me want to go back to those books and look at them all over again, because surely there is more to see.


I also suspect he had a special appreciation for Flaubert because of Flaubert’s boldness in taking on an extremely taboo subject:


Indeed, the novel was actually tried in a court of justice for obscenity. Just imagine that. As if the work of an artist could ever be obscene. I am glad to say that Flaubert won his case. That was exactly a hundred years ago. In our days, our times…But let me keep to my subject.


Not that Nabokov would know anything about morality-based criticisms of a novel, oh no.


For this particular lecture, Nabokov doesn’t only focus on the actual text of Madame Bovary but he brings in a discussion of Flaubert’s letters to his then lover, Louise Colet, written while Flaubert was holed away in Normandy writing the novel. That added input adds a whole new dimension to understanding Flaubert’s intent. We often wonder whether great writers do things on purpose in their books, or if critics see things or find connections/allusions/hidden meanings the writer created by accident or maybe wasn’t fully aware of. The excerpts of these letters show that Flaubert knew exactly what he was doing at all times. And also that he worked very hard to construct his novel in a particular way according to a set of particular intentions.


Nabokov taught Madame Bovary to his students at Wellesley and Cornell using a translation by Eleanor Marx Aveling (the daughter of Karl Marx) which is available at Gutenberg. I don’t know how many other translations were around at the same time, but Nabokov has nothing but angry criticism for “the translators”. He went so far as to re-translate huge sections for his classes and made lists of mistranslated words.


One of his more interesting criticisms is when he says that the translator incorrectly translates Flaubert’s use of the French imparfait (the imperfect form of the past tense), a device which allows Flaubert to express the notion of uninterrupted time, things a person “used to do”, and any ruptures in that flow (all intentional constructs in his writing).



In Tostes Emma walks out with her whippet: “She would begin (not “began”) by looking around her to see if nothing had changed since the last she had been there. She would find (not “found”) again in the same places the foxgloves and wallflowers, the beds of nettles growing round the big stones, and the patches of lichen along the three windows, whose shutters, always closed, were rotting away on their rusty iron bars. Her thoughts, aimless at first, would wander (not “wandered”) at random…”


 According to Nabokov, Flaubert used the imparfait to fill the entire book with a sense of suspended animation, giving weight to Emma’s feeling of dreary monotony. That a translator would so casually overlook this aesthetic decision must have driven Nabokov insane.


Something Nabokov and I do not agree on is whether Charles knew about Emma’s infidelities. I mentioned this in my last post and after reading Nabokov’s essay I had to go back to the text to make sure I didn’t misunderstand something. But some time after Emma dies, Charles runs into Rodolphe (Emma’s first lover) in town and the two men go and drink a cider together. They’re talking but both men are looking at the other, just thinking of Emma. Suddenly Charles looks right at him and says, Je ne vous en veux pas, which means, I don’t hate you, or I don’t blame you. Flaubert, of course, turns the moment inside out by quickly switching to Rodolphe’s perspective and painting Charles in an awful, pathetic light – the same way Rodolphe treated him when he was secretly meeting with Emma.


I’m toying with the idea of picking up Flaubert’s L’Education Sentimentale, another I read in college but have nearly forgotten by now. It might be worth it after learning so much about Flaubert’s writing technique from Nabokov.


Otherwise, I’ve got to read Longinus this week. And I started Richard Ford’s Wildfire, which is quite short and I think I’ll finish up this afternoon. I am relatively unfamiliar with Ford’s writing style except for one or two of his short stories. In this novel, he’s using the first person and writes these kind of serpentine sentences with lots of commas and movement to them. I like the technique and how it informs my understanding of the narrator. But more on that later!




19 Responses to “Nabokov on Madame Bovary”

  1. Jeane

    reading the excerpts here helped me appreciate the novel a bit more. I’m almost tempted to try reading it again! maybe with Nabokov at my elbow.

  2. adevotedreader

    Madame Bovary is certainly a novel worth re-reading, although I try to restrain myself to once a year! I’m looking forward to reading A Sentimental Education for the first time very soon, so would be interested to read your thoughts if you revisit it.

    I’ve ordered Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature and can’t wait until it’s in the letterbox!

  3. verbivore

    Jeane – After reading the Nabokov lecture I’d nearly recommend reading that first (especially if you already know the basic story) and then reading the novel. Could be an interesting way to go about it.

    Devotedreader – I hope you enjoy the Lectures, I couldn’t be happier with them. I think he has another book of compiled lectures as well, but I’m not sure, I have to check. We’ll have to compare notes on Sentimental Education!

  4. leems

    I recently finished Madame Bovary, a cheap paperback copy and so a cheap translation as well. But I enjoyed it all the same. I also believe Charles knew about the infidelities, if only for that one scene. It was so subtly done, though, I feel like Flaubert probably wanted to keep it ambiguous.

  5. zhiv

    Good stuff, Verb. I got stalled on rereading Madame Bovary, but I saw an essay on it by Mary McCarthy in my recent perusals, so you might want to check that out. And in the same volume there’s an essay on Pale Fire, which was pretty involved. Just an FYI.

  6. verbivore

    Leems – That’s a good point, I suspect Flaubert did want to keep it somewhat ambiguous, or at least not any overt argument. I liked the moment because it confirmed what I suspected and made me look at Charles differently. There may well be some good translations out there, especially ones done in recent years. Who was your translator?

    Zhiv – I will definitely look for the Mary McCarthy essay and I was just thinking I need to read some more Nabokov fiction. Pale Fire would be a great place to start – thanks for the tip!

  7. Amateur Reader

    Nabokov’s “Lectures on Russian Literature” are available (Cornell lectures, like the book you have) as well as the eccentric “Lectures on Don Quixote” and his brilliant little book on Nikolai Gogol. I guess there are also the multiple volumes of “Eugene Onegin” – bring a machete before entering.

  8. verbivore

    Ann – thanks so much for the link, I’ll definitely have a look.

    Amateur Reader- wonderful, exactly what I would want to follow on these lectures. I’m terrified of Eugene Onegin.

  9. Dorothy W.

    I usually think that the author’s intentions don’t matter, but I can still be curious about what an author was thinking, so it’s very interesting to hear that Flaubert was so self-aware — not surprising, actually!

    Oh, and I love Pale Fire! I should hunt down the MM essay on it.

  10. verbivore

    Dorothy – When I’m evaluating a novel, I don’t like to take the author’s intentions into consideration, but later, when I’ve finished I like looking back with the knowledge of what they might have been trying to do – it can be really interesting.
    I definitely need to read Pale Fire – I’m at a loss where Nabokov’s fiction is concerned!

  11. mikezilla

    madame bovary is my favorite book ever…truly knocked me on my ass. i’ve been avoiding nabokov’s lecture on it for fear that he would find flaw with it that I would never have noticed otherwise, as he never hesitates to express his criticism. but reading your blog post has put me on a wave of enthusiasm. i can’t wait to check it out!

    • verbivore

      Mike – I was nervous about the Nabokov lecture as well, since I didn’t want him to find flaw with Flaubert. On the contrary, I suspect Flaubert might have been one of Nabokov’s all-time favorite writers. He definitely admired Flaubert’s precision. Of all the essays in my collection of Nabokov on Literature, the Flaubert was the most rewarding.

  12. Rick Massimo

    One thing I don’t get is that Nabokov rails against the translators, often in rather small detail, and then goes on to say that Emma’s famous line is “Good Heavens! why did I marry?” when the French reads “Pourquoi, mon Dieu! me suis-je mariee?”

    I know virtually no French, but doesn’t “Mon Dieu” mean “My God”? That seems like an important distinction, given the religious overtones of the early bit of the book. Other translations have rendered it thusly.

    Or is there a colloquial meaning that I don’t know?

    • verbivore

      Rick – You ask a really good question. Yes, Mon Dieu is literally “My God” so it’s curious that Nabokov went for a more colloquial and benign “My Goodness” as opposed to other translators. Perhaps he was uncomfortable with the idea of putting religion into that moment, although I would tend to agree with you that Emma “swearing” at this moment speaks volumes for her psychological state.

  13. Mel

    I read Madame Bovary for maybe the 3rd time a few months ago, an ice cold work of perfection.
    About a week ago I read A Sentimental Education
    for the first time. In the Oxford Classics edition, the editor flirts with the idea that it deserves a higher rank than War and Peace. I enjoyed the great sense of life in the book on my first reading, it rich account of Paris. Ford Madox Ford said you could not consider yourself educated until you had read A Sentimental Education 14 times-maybe I wont ever be that educated, then, but I will for sure reread it. To me one’s second Flaubert should be Three Tales (easy to read on line)

  14. Frances

    Most helpful post for the current shared read and I thank you for directing me here via my post. You have made the final push I required to pick up the Nabokov lecture this weekend. And I am sure I will be back here to compare my impressions with yours. Love your work here.

    • verbivore

      Frances, I do hope you enjoy the lecture. I’ll be eager to see your response to it as the group read continues. Thanks for stopping by!

  15. Jerome Jerome Jerome

    I read Nabakov’s translation of MB and it rocked!

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